It Requires More Than Money and WordsAt a New Year''s ceremony for scientists this year, President Kim Dae-jung announced an intention to strengthen state support for the development of information and communications technology, life science and nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology is defined as the ability to fabricate molecular-scale devices and machinery featuring nanometer sizes and atomic precision. (A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.)
The fundamental goal of nanotechnology lies in the production of microscopic systems and devices by controlling the operating principles of molecules and atoms. When great advances are made in the emerging field of nanotechnology, it will be possible to look forward to the commercialization of subminiature devices hitherto only dreamed of in science fiction novels, such as microscale robots that travel through blood vessels to diagnose and treat the human body at the cellular and molecular levels. We might even see the marketing of tiny computers we could attach to, say, our fingernails.
Because of the projected huge size of the market and enormous industrial value-added potential, advanced countries are vesting great interest in this new frontier of science. The United States designated the development of nanotechnology as a special national task, and is investing hundreds of millions of dollars on research.
Nanotechnology does not mean an incremental advance of existing miniaturization technologies, however. While electronic products, including computer chips, are constantly shrinking, it is difficult to produce operable devices in nanometer sizes based on the use of existing concepts and operation principles, owing to the limitations imposed by the laws of physics. Active research is under way to find new ways, based on fundamentally different concepts, of controlling the structure of matter at molecular and atomic levels.
The future of nanotechnology is extremely bright, and commercially viable ideas have been developed in several areas. But for the most part the technology is still at an experimental stage. Most experts believe the success of nanotechnology depends on the results of the research on new principles at the atomic and molecular levels, rather than on the developments achieved in engineering production technologies.
Such a shift in the focus of scientific research means it is necessary for Korea to adopt major strategic changes in research and development of science.
Creative and talented personnel play an absolutely indispensable role in developing advanced basic technologies. Skilled scientists were essential, of course, in developing existing technologies and engineering processes, the areas Korea concentrated on most heavily in the past. What we lacked, we could buy with money or supplement by committing more human resources. The situation is different now. The advanced technologies that we now require are not those that money can buy. Neither are groundbreaking results in basic research the kind that scientists of ordinary abilities can obtain by working together.
The success of Korea''s nano-science depends on its ability to attract gifted personnel with unique and creative ideas. Dr. Robert Dynes, chancellor of the University of California in San Diego and a strong advocate of promoting nanotechnology in the United States, declares that the essential task in ensuring the success of U.S. nanotechnology lies in cultivating highly talented human resources in basic sciences, such as chemistry and physics.
It is fortunate that the South Korean government is now making efforts to nurture outstanding personnel, its latest measure being the promotion of the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Education and Human Resources headed by a deputy prime minister. But many areas of the Korean society still appear to be tied down to the paradigms of the past.
One example is the Seoul National University. In its recent adjustment of the number of undergraduate student places, the university made the greatest cut in the college of natural sciences, where basic science is studied. Since many of the students of the college of natural sciences will go on to major in medicine and dentistry, the number of students who actually study basic sciences will be fewer than half the current level.
In making such a decision, the university appeared to have given no consideration to its role as a state university responsible for promoting basic areas of learning.
If the policy spreads to other universities, the environment for basic science research, inferior as it is, will further degenerate. In such circumstances there is absolutely no possibility of Korea acquiring global competitiveness, no matter how much the government emphasizes the importance of nanotechnology and provides it research funding.
The government''s future policy on research and development of science technology has to be focused on cultivating researchers with gifted talents as much as on expanding research investments. The private sector also has to pursue reforms that keep in step with the new trends in science in order for Korea to become a competitive country in the 21st century.